|2017 – Virtual High School K–5 Course Project|
Stephen Baker, Principal
Kimberley Loebach, Director of Operations
Virtual High School
The concept of Virtual High School (VHS) came to fruition in 1995 when the team that formed VHS was involved in writing its first online course as part of an initiative by the Huron County Board of Education in Ontario. Virtual High School broke its affiliation with the public school board in 2000. Steve Baker, now Principal of VHS, spent the first years in the new millennium writing additional courses. Since then, Virtual High School’s teachers and writers have been writing content and providing online high school courses to students across Ontario and around the world.
As a school issuing Ontario Secondary School Diploma credits, VHS has grown to be one of the largest private high schools in Canada. In the fall of 2017, VHS employed 109 staff with an additional 92 instructional staff as independent contractors. VHS offers 76 fully online courses with an expected enrolment of 7300 student credits in 2017. VHS owns Hekademia, a separate entity which provides adaptive competency e-learning courses to schools in the United States. VHS also owns and operates Virtual Elementary School (VES), a fully online elementary school that offers content to students in grades five to eight around the world. VES is also inspected by the Ministry of Education in Ontario. VHS and VES courses are hosted by the D2LTM Integrated Learning Platform, BrightspaceTM.
The K-5 Course Project
One of the larger US-based online schools, a fully accredited program offering more than 150 courses to K-12 students, had been leasing the content used in their K-5 program. Recently, the school determined they would like to move towards developing their own K‐5 program to align with their overall strategic plan. On 15 June 2016, the online school released a request for proposal (RFP) in which they solicited responses for the development of a product suite of 36 elementary courses for use in a virtual classroom environment supporting Kindergarten through grade 5 including, but not limited to, English language arts, mathematics, social studies, science, and specialty subjects including technology, foreign language – Spanish, art, and/or physical education. The RFP specified that the final deliverable was to be royalty-free and property of the school with no additional licensing fees. Respondents to the RFP could choose to respond to one or more lots. The response requirements included a written proposal as well as samples of courses, multimedia, and frameworks. Virtual High School chose to respond to all six lots and made several trips to the school to present the VHS vision for the courses.
On 10 August 2016, a letter was sent to Virtual High School indicating that the Evaluation Committee intended to move forward and award all 6 lots of K-5 course development to Virtual High School. An agreement between VHS and the online school was signed on 23 August 2016 which laid out the scope of work for the project. The agreement committed VHS to write and develop 36 blended and fully online courses for their K-5 program. The scope and complexity of this project for Virtual High School would turn out to be game-changing.
The Project Start
The starting gun had fired but the marathon was just beginning. Following the intent to award, negotiations and contract signing proceeded quickly. By mid-September 2016, the project had begun, and its strict timeline was set. While VHS quickly began organizing the physical facilities and human resources, training that would allow VHS staff to realize the online school’s vision had already started. The initial VHS team of about 15 people (existing staff) went through training on a variety of tasks ranging from look and feel, to assessments, to class-time presentations, to storyboarding, and the learning continues to this day.
Phase 1 – Proof of Concept (POC) & Project Initiation
The POC phase offered an opportunity for VHS to receive full training and practice on how to build content that aligned to the online school’s expectations. Each of the eight subject areas teams would write, design and develop approximately ten complete days of content. VHS had to follow a specific process of storyboarding, lesson writing, developing content, participating in on-screen sessions, reviewing content, publishing units, and working with Q&As, each with a touchpoint established by the Project owner.
The POC phase went from September 2016 until mid-December 2016, with a plan for Phase 2 to start in January 2017. Although VHS was able to learn much from the POC phase, in retrospect, a disproportionate amount of time was spent on only a small portion of the overall work. When the POC phase had to be extended, both VHS and the online school could see concerns regarding the timeline emerging. All POCs were successfully completed by February 2017.
Phase 2 – Grades K-2 Development
As regular development began in February 2017, VHS and the online school continued to work through the challenges many remote teams face – team relationships and trust, communication, multiple meetings each day, and other incidentals that are the hallmarks of such complex undertakings. Weekly project management and executive meetings discussed ways to build team relationships, clarify issues, address misunderstandings, and ensure that all writers, developers, and media experts were all working towards a clearly understood, common goal: providing the best content in the most expeditious way possible. Most of the teams functioned well most of the time. In this phase, teams followed the same process outlined above, with ideation and high-level planning added. This meant that each course needed ideation and high-level planning, and each module would have to be storyboarded, written, developed, presented on-screen, reviewed, published, and quality assured before approval would be given.
In Phase 2, large discrepancies in progress began to appear across different subject areas at VHS. Certain teams could move quickly and meet most dates, but other teams appeared to be developing two or three times as much content as other areas did. The project management team had no choice but to take drastic measures to make changes, eventually resulting in a duplicate English language arts (ELA) team and two significant changes to workflow in order to have the volume and quality meet the timeline restrictions. As Phase 2 progressed, the two entities decided to limit all team and project meetings other than the three project management level meetings each week. This would allow VHS to focus on the work without interruption from the online school. Both teams felt confident that they had established a level of mutual trust and that they could proceed more independently. By the end of Phase 2, more than 76 000 media assets had been created or procured and approximately 26 000 pages of content produced for the K-5 Project.
Phase 3 – Grades 3-5 Development
As of December 2017, all teams are working in phase 3 with some subject areas quickly approaching the last portions of Grade 5. Although a refined workflow has been established at this point, this portion of the project will be a test for both teams. Much content has yet to be developed, and VHS has a set timeline of 28 February 2018, to work within, but VHS has full confidence in the skills of its teams and in the knowledge developed over the last year that they will meet the deadline set for the various courses.
The Space Program
There is situational irony in the fact that Virtual High School has always struggled with having enough physical space for its staff. Over the years, VHS expanded organically to a staff of 40 and occupied two of the three floors of a fully renovated landmark hotel in the small town of Bayfield, Ontario (population: 900 in the winter). The K-5 Course Project was signed in August 2016 precipitating the start of a rapid period of hiring, and soon both floors were filled to capacity. The basement was rewired, and it quickly filled with two content teams. A house was purchased in the village to house the growing multimedia team and the top floor of another building on the main street was leased to house the science team. In August 2017, with a staff of 109, physical space was again a major concern at VHS. For any start-up company growing organically, the first big contract really becomes a test to determine how well and how quickly the right people can be hired and also how to provide the proper space within a short period of time to allow all of the expanding teams to work effectively. That an online, virtual school needed the face-to-face presence of teams working together in the same physical space in order to effectively create online courses continues the situational irony.
Properly staffing this project constituted an enormous learning experience for VHS. Even today, as VHS staff enter the last leg of the project, they see ways they can improve upon next time. In another, similar endeavor, VHS human resources personnel will now know what is necessary to prepare for success sooner. VHS’s original proposal for this project included a total of 38 staff and 30 remote course writers. Amongst the 38 staff, 25 were dedicated to course production, 3 to project management and 10 to multimedia and web development.
With the RFP’s design that related to “core” and “special” area courses, the VHS plan was to create four dual teams that would cover a core and special area. For example, Social Studies and Art were bundled together, Science and Physical Education paired, etc. The rationale here was that this would allow resources to cross over between the disciplines based on demand. In addition to course teams, the project had two course development coordinators who oversaw the arts (e.g., ELA, Spanish, social studies, art) and science (e.g., math, tech, science, phys ed) disciplines, respectively, to manage any difficulties across the teams in those disciplines.
Throughout the first year, many iterations were formulated as to how VHS would structure teams. This led to a re-examination of the resources that would be required. Since there was too little time to increase resources before the project started, VHS was slow out of the blocks. Hiring good talent takes time, so what did not go as planned was the hiring of suitable people until August 2017 (roughly a full year into the 18-month project). This meant that teams were receiving new resources sporadically, causing them to be training new people and then having teams continually increase their speed of operations.
One year into the project, the teams have evolved as follows:
- Dual teams quickly divided into distinct teams. For example, the social studies/art team became the social students team and the art team. The timeline did now allow the dual team approach to be successful.
- Remote writers did not work out well. Considering the challenges in having new in-house staff on-boarded, training a remote person to understand the client’s expectations effectively proved difficult. As a result, in-house teams spent excessive amounts of time reworking writing and pulling individual members away from other tasks.
- The media team expanded and divided into audio/video and graphics, each with its own team lead. There was also a need to have someone overseeing media scheduling to ensure that these terms were able to meet all of the key dates.
- Copyediting became its own team. Two additional staff ensured that content was error free – something that was previously done within teams, not separately.
- A team of floating support was created – coined the “Dream Team.” These members were generally trained on tasks to lend a hand whenever teams felt the pinch of an upcoming deadline.
Among all of these larger shifts were many smaller changes to each team’s structure and vision. Some teams focused members in specialized areas, while others found more success in rotating tasks. Teams expanded and contracted, and there was a need to have regular “office hours” with project management to discuss how to structure a team for the next key deadline.
Although significant planning went into the initiation of this project, hindsight is always 20/20. VHS leads now see endless ways in which some operations might have been done differently or could have been planned more carefully, but these are not lessons that can be learned in advance. At this time, this project is the one of the largest content development projects taking place in the K-5 sector, let alone in an 18-month time frame. VHS committed enthusiastically to the project, and the staff have gained priceless experience and sharpened countless skills. Although it has been a stressful, demanding project, VHS will be well-poised for the next iteration.